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Regardless of specifics, from the time of the first Kamakura shogun, Zen Buddhism had found its foothold in ancient Japan, and its impact was imminent. One key point that Winston L. King brought up (see Bibliography) was that Zen monks did not enter into politics to advance in the imperial court. He gave three rather lengthy reasons for this lack of political striving:
Zen, by nature, was anti-institutional; its timing was such that it was not introduced during a warring period; and its monks already held top advisory positions in the shogun’s councils, so there was no need for further political striving. (31)
As stated above, the move to Kamakura put Zen monks in a position of close confidence with the military leaders of the day. Even though this relationship had humble beginnings and was probably mostly secular in nature (record keeping, political advising, etc.), it grew quickly as the employers of those monks realized there was more to be gained from Zen’s religious aspects than just sutra study and recitation.
The warrior class was quick to see the potential for “special spiritual and psychological strength from Zen, which contributed to the strength of character, firmness of will and imperviousness to suffering on which they prided themselves.” (Reischauer 1989, 53)
With similar prized characteristics as a goal of sorts, Zen meditation and martial arts training naturally complemented each other. The spiritual path of Zen was one that the samurai found most appealing. Truth, in the Zen tradition, was to be found within the deepest core of one’s visceral being, not in the intellect. This put the truth well within the range of the samurai’s awareness and emotional compatibility. (King 1993, 163)
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Zen offered the samurai what no amount of physical training or knowledge of military strategy could. The purpose of Zen meditation was to open this martial training to the subconscious, instinctive forces of his being that governed action without thought. (King 1993, 166) The techniques of swordsmanship were not inherently flawed, but the factor that was most open to imperfections was the mind of the practitioner. Zen offered what is called mushin, or no-mind.
Taisen Deshimaru likened mushin to “the body thinking.” (1991, 78) In D.T. Suzuki’s Zen and Japanese Culture, it is described thus: “[It is] going beyond the dualism of all forms of life and death, good and evil, being and non-being. … Hereby he becomes a kind of automation, so to speak, as far as his own consciousness is concerned.” (94)
Takuan Soho wrote about mushin in three letters to Yagyu Munenori, head of the Yagyu Shinkage school of swordsmanship. (King 1993, 167) A passage reads as follows:
“Mugaku meant that in wielding the sword, in the infinitesimal time it takes lightning to strike, there is neither mind nor thought. For the striking, there is no mind. For myself, who is about to be struck, there is no mind. The attacker is emptiness. His sword is emptiness. I, who am about to be struck, am emptiness. … Completely forget about the mind and you will do all things well.” (37)
To understand this is to understand the heart of Zen. Some might call this having a satori (realization of a profound truth). Zen, having in its nature a focus on the non-rational mind, is difficult to explain by merely defining theses. The best way to understand Zen thought is by illustration. One of the best illustrations of how one might benefit from Zen training comes from Suzuki’s Zen and Japanese Culture:
“He who deliberates and moves his brush intent on making a picture, misses to a still greater extent the art of painting. Draw bamboo for 10 years, become a bamboo, then forget all about bamboo when you are drawing. In possession of an infallible technique, the individual places himself at the mercy of inspiration.
“To become a bamboo and to forget that you are one with it while drawing it — this is the Zen of the bamboo, this is the moving with the rhythmic movement of the spirit which resides in the bamboo as well as in the artist himself. What is now required of him is to have a firm hold on the spirit and yet not to be conscious of the fact.” (31)
This passage entails the entire essence of Zen and the martial arts. Through zazen, or seated meditation, one comes to know mushin. With the prerequisite of swordsmanship training, the practitioner then must forget that he has this library of knowledge and …